Meet a Pennsylvania institution
Saturday 02 July 2022
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Though Tröegs considers itself a small regional brewery, it's a gigantium operation. It’s on every menu I see at every bar I visit in Philadelphia, and is well revered by all other breweries I visit. The site itself is simply enormous, with multiple brewhouses running simultaneously to produce a quantity of beer that caters to the fanbase Tröegs has cultivated over the last 25 years. Prior to moving to its current location, in Hershey Pennsylvania, Tröegs spent fifteen years in Harrisburg, but the space at its disposal there didn’t accommodate for the expansive taproom, function and meeting rooms, offices, and overflow seating area that the location has now; and that’s before we start talking about the brewery, but we’ll get to that.
My tour around the brewery is led by co-founder Chris Trogner, who started the brewery with his brother John, back in 1997. Both are Pennsylvania natives but in early adulthood branched out in different directions to pursue personal interests; Chris went to Colorado, John to Philadelphia. They remained in close contact, and often spoke about the beers they were drinking and the breweries they were individually visiting; both brothers had been homebrewing for two years at this stage, and had discussed wanting to start a business together but Chris says that, at the time, they didn’t quite know what that meant.
John eventually moved out to join Chris in Colorado, and got a job in a brewpub belonging to the Oasis Brewing Company. Chris was working in a restaurant at the time, but not long after John’s arrival, enrolled in a short course in brewing, with a focus on real ales, at the University of Sunderland, in England. Upon completing the course, both brothers moved back to Pennsylvania and started Tröegs.
“It literally started with just two of us, and all volunteers, then each year, as we would sell more beer we’d buy more equipment - I'm sure you've heard similar stories- and then we started hiring more people, and kept building out over the course of 20 years. The original brewery was never set up for long term growth. It was just getting business funding and putting it down, so as we started to grow, we knew we had infrastructure challenges.
“We could continue to have equipment, but we felt like we needed to kind of reset and that's when we moved to Hershey. We thought the building we’re now in was perfect- it was a big open box- but Hershey is also a very unique kind of town. It's very small, but it gets about 4 million people passing through it every year; so we looked at this place as a way to maintain Central Pennsylvania routes. We have traffic coming in from New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey. So we thought it'd be a way for us to hopefully connect with a lot of different people”.
It literally started with just two of us, and all volunteers
Mapping the growth and progression of Tröegs is fascinating; Chris apologises for continuing to reflect on the culture of craft beer contemporary to when Tröegs first started out, but it makes for some fascinating insights into the development of the industry in Pennsylvania. “When we first started out we were a brewery only”, says Chris, “you could give beer away over the bar, but if you were selling it, you could only sell it in cases of 24 - and this all goes back to the way Pennsylvania laws are set up.
“That was the way it was for quite a while, probably about five years. And then we eventually started to do tours - of course this all sounds obvious now with hindsight - but once we started doing tours we saw sales outside the brewery grow” says Chris. The geek in me flutters upon hearing that Chris and John, only really started offering tours on a Saturday because both of them had an ongoing fascination with how things are made - and that’s all things, not just beer - and they figured other people might feel the same and want to know more about how to produce beer. A testament to the longevity of this interest is the self-guided tour around Tröegs that exists today; visitors to the brewery can embark on it any time, and complete it at their leisure.
“We kind of realised that people want to know where things come from and how they're made; so we had a teaser, it was about the size of this room. What used to be our offices we ripped out and we cut a couple holes in the wall. Then also, in Pennsylvania at that time, as long as you had 30 seats and 30 meals, you could then start selling beer over the bar. So we put 30 little stools around, and we bought 30 frozen dinners and started selling beer. Which was silly, but that was the progression. You know, when we moved here the industry was totally different.”
From meagre beginnings, the Tröegs facility essentially now houses three breweries under the same roof; a three, fifteen and hundred barrel brewhouse that, learning from previous infrastructure challenges, John and Chris have ensured are engineered in the same way, so they’re as flexible as their respective sizes allow. Tröegs now has a designated creative team of seven specialists that work on the brewery’s Scratch Programme, where recipe design and technique can be experimented with and fine tuned. It also has a Splinter Programme (barrel project series), in house yeast lab where yeast can be cultivated and propagated, and a designated area for sour projects. For all its soaring success and awe-inspiring growth, this will be the first time Tröegs has ever exported internationally; so drink up and enjoy an exclusive taste of this Pennsylvania giant.
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